During the 20th century, Latin American authors blended the folkloric storytelling of rural communities with academic elements of high literature to create the genre of magical realism. Characterized by its mix of fantasy and realism, the genre mixes gritty, authentic narration with symbolic elements of the fantastical. Though most of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s works embody some element of magical realism, his short story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” is perhaps his finest work in the genre. Throughout the piece, Marquez exemplifies magical realism by contrasting the sacred with the mundane in his depiction of the angel. The townspeople accept the angel very matter-of-factly. They don’t consider his arrival to be anything miraculous and immediately focus on how the angel can benefit them. However, when the angel fails to perform the miracles they seek, the people deem him unimpressive and move on.
Marquez pays particular attention to describing the wings of the angel, fleshing them out in such detail that they become symbolic of the greater theme. Though the old man’s wings designate him as a supernatural angel, their grimy and unhygienic description belie this notion, making him appear to simply be a decrepit sailor. These wings symbolize the inextricable connection between the sacred and the mundane. This concept is further explored in Pelayo and Elisenda’s reactions to the miracles the receive. Though it becomes quite clear that the angel is the reason for the family’s change in fortune, having acquired vast amounts of wealth and their son cured of his illness, Pelayo and Elisanda never give credit to or thank the angel for this blessing. This particular example, coupled with the reactions of the other townspeople for receiving miracles they weren’t expecting, demonstrates their inability to understand or appreciate miraculousness. This all stems from the earthly appearance of the angel and, more specifically, his wings.
They don’t seem to be wings that befit the traditional notion of an angel in heaven but rather wings that belong on Earth, for “they seemed so natural on that completely human organism that [the doctor] couldn’t understand why other men didn’t have them too.” These wings appear so unimpressive, “strewn with parasites” and “dirty and half-plucked,” that the townsfolk are unable to associate him with miraculousness or appreciate the sacredness of his arrival. The description of and reaction to the angel’s wings serve as a critique of people who lack the perception or imagination to find the sublime in the seemingly mundane. Miracles are not always obvious or supernatural, but people’s heightened expectations blind them to the everyday miracles.
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